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The Scientist Making (and Destroying) Military-Grade Foam in Brooklyn

What kind of foam is strong enough to survive a car crash? We find out in this episode of Lab Spaces.

by Lara Heintz
Mar 13 2015, 3:30pm

​Let's talk about foam for minute—or rather, syntactic foam. Unlike its soft padded equivalent, syntactic foam may be the material key to protecting ourselves in the future.

At least that's what Nikhil Gupta, an Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at NYU, is hoping. As we race into the future of space travel, electric cars, and high impact sports, some of our biggest challenges are not actually how we design our future modes of transportation but what we actually build them with.

Today we're hurtling ourselves over the Earth's surface at faster speeds and higher altitudes while still trying to reduce our energy consumption. It's a brave new world, and with a new world, we need new materials.

Gupta's syntactic foams start with the assumption that in order to meet our increasing needs for energy efficiency, our materials need to be lightweight. But in order to protect us—many of Gupta's materials are used by the military for building planes and ships—they must also be strong.

While all foams are porous, and porous materials are extremely lightweight, they're not strong—which is why Gupta's syntactic foams start with ceramic and metal hollow particles that are then bonded into complex matrices, as opposed to starting with a block of material and punching holes in it.

Walking into Gupta's laboratory in Brooklyn, it's easy to see why he enjoys his work. Among foam samples, desks, and computers, are machines custom built to break something in about as many way as you can think of. His custom built Hopkinson machine, for example, is meant to replicate what might happen in a car crash or a bomb blast.

Today, we may be thinking space travel and reducing our fuel consumption, but in his laboratory at NYU, Professor Gupta is well on his way to making that a material reality.